The foreign hands in the Bangla polls

Why the US, China and India are all nosing about in these elections, and how India’s influence is waning

Posters festoon a street in Dhaka ahead of the general election. (Photo: Getty Images)
Posters festoon a street in Dhaka ahead of the general election. (Photo: Getty Images)

Subir Bhaumik

With Bangladesh’s 12th parliamentary polls scheduled for 7 January 2024, the country is set for an imminent showdown between the ruling Awami League and the opposition Islamist coalition of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Jamaat-e-Islami. Simultaneously, the stage is also set for a confrontation between China and the US, with India undecided on how far it will go in supporting the Awami League, its friend for more than 50 years.

The US has made it amply clear that it wants a fair and inclusive process under a ‘neutral caretaker’ administration with non-political civil society groups conducting the polls, rather than political or bureaucratic bodies, to prevent the kind of massive electoral fraud that marked the last general elections. (Significantly, the US is fine with the electoral process in India.)

India, like China, is keen on keeping the Awami League in power to protect its geo-political interests. New Delhi wants a friendly eastern neighbourhood, with Dhaka taking care of its security and connectivity concerns.

However, it cannot afford another fraudulent election because that would leave India on arm-wrestling terms with strategic partner US. The reason why China wants Sheikh Hasina to stay in power is precisely the reason why the US wants her out—to gain further access to and control over the Indian Ocean.

While the polls pose an existential challenge for the ruling Awami League and the BNP, it also provides a window of opportunity for the country’s leading Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami.

The Jamaat’s registration was cancelled by the Election Commission and their appeal to restore it overturned by a determined legal challenge led by barrister Tania Amir, representing liberal Islamic groups.

Despite the failure in the courts, the Jamaat has covertly put together four militant hit groups that are primed for extensive violence: the Azam Squad, the Raojan Squad, the Al Hazrat Squad and the Jamaatul-Ansar-fil-Hindal Sharqiya (Assembly of the Helpers in the East of India, or Jamaatul Ansar).

The result is a covert Kashmir-style ‘United Jihad Council’ that is attractive to all those interested in perpetuating mayhem politics: the Awami League if it wishes to engineer a situation that would justify an Emergency, the BNP if it chooses outright violence as a means to oust the Awami League, the US (for similar reasons) and of course Pakistan and other hardliners in the Islamic world.

For India, the binary of only two possible electoral outcomes—the Awami League or the BNP–Jamaat coalition—severely limits room for manoeuvre, not least because its strategic partner, the almighty USA, appears bent on ousting PM Hasina’s Awami League from power, leaving Delhi with the prospect of an Islamist coalition in Dhaka.

While Hasina had accused the first BJP government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee for backing the BNP–Jamaat coalition and bringing down her government through a RAW (Research & Analysis Wing, India’s external intelligence agency) operation six years ago, India’s experience with her bête noire Khaleda Zia (prime minister from 2001 to 2006) was less than happy due to terror strikes in east and north-east India by Bangladesh-based Islamist radicals or ethnic separatists.

Hasina firmly addressed India’s security and connectivity concerns through tough counter-terrorism action, while transit and coastal shipping agreements eased connections between the mainland and the North-East. However, she started to change course over India’s failures to settle river water sharing treaties, to maintain the facade of distance from a right-wing Hindutva party.

Thus, while India is clearly unwilling to hedge its bets with the BNP, it is also clearly uncomfortable with Hasina’s recent failure to check the rising power of a strong Islamist lobby within the Awami League.

Shepherded by Hasina’s adviser Salman Fazlur Rahman and information minister Hasan Mahmud, the Islamists have managed to corner maximum electoral nominations in the party, edging out known pro-Indian personalities strongly wedded to the legacy of the 1971 Liberation War.

The choice of a relative non-entity like Mohammad Shahabuddin Chuppu (backed by Salman Rahman’s Beximco and the Masood S. Alam group) as president-elect over the India-backed Liberation War veteran and former industry minister Amir Hossain Amu is a case in point.

As many as 69 of the 300 candidates recently allotted party tickets by the Awami League have a history of activism in Islamist parties like the Jamaat while 48 are businesspersons with strong trade links to China.

The buzz in Dhaka is that this group, which might get elected in a possibly controversial (read manipulated) election, will pitch for Salman Rahman as deputy PM and his cronies in all key ministries. This was strongly driven home when Rahman, and not finance minister Mustafa ‘Lotus’ Kamal, attended the Global Economic Policy Forum in New Delhi recently.

Party insiders say Rahman has complete control over PM Hasina and is often referred to as the de facto PM, not least because Hasina’s son Sajeeb Wazed Joy shares a strong business partnership with the Rahmans. Their flagship company Beximco and its subsidiaries put out huge paid advertisements in observance of Pakistan’s Independence Day on 14 August, trampling over Bangladeshi sensitivities regarding the 1971 genocide.

Hasina may have pleased Delhi by concluding a power purchase agreement with the Adanis—at grossly inflated rates, report Bangladesh business circles—but India’s national security and diplomatic establishment is worried at the prospect of having to back a trusted ally that is increasingly turning towards China for external support in order to ward off both US pressure and homegrown Islamists’ domestic political manoeuvring.

Caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, India is becoming increasingly unpopular with Bangladeshi citizens. They blame Hasina and her Indian backers for denying them a fair election in 2013–14 and 2018–19, as well as for rampant corruption and uncontrollable price rises.

India’s capacity to influence Hasina is at an all-time low because the ‘Iron Lady’ sees a Chinese veto at the UN Security Council as more useful than the promise of Indian support to remain in power. Added to this is the FBI indictment against Indian citizen Nikhil Gupta in the alleged plot to murder Khalistani activist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun.

New Delhi’s ability to influence Hasina is directly linked to India’s influence within the Awami League. If Delhi’s preferred ones are systematically eased out in Dhaka, there will be fewer people in Hasina’s cabinet to block, for example, China’s near-total penetration of Bangladesh’s telecom and infrastructure sector, including projects such the Chinese-funded dredging of the river Teesta.

With the US backing the Islamist coalition to intensify street agitations to topple Hasina, while simultaneously leaning on India to get Hasina to step down, and with New Delhi and Dhaka caught in a vortex of confusion, round one in the battle for Dhaka goes to Washington. Beijing and Delhi are both on the defensive, strangely finding themselves on the same page over a key regional issue.

The million-dollar question is: (a) whether China can use its UNSC veto to keep Hasina in her seat, as it has done so far to save Myanmar’s military junta; (b) whether India will go for a major confrontation with strategic partner US to keep the Awami League afloat, and (c) whether the US will unreservedly pursue its regime change agenda in Bangladesh or strike a deal with India to allow Hasina to stay in power.

(Subir Bhaumik is a former BBC and Reuters correspondent, and author of five books on South Asian conflicts)

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